Open letter to the city of Whitehorse on the review of the snowmobile bylaw

Open letter to the city of Whitehorse on the review of the snowmobile bylaw The increasing operation of snowmobiles throughout Whitehorse, permitted to some extent under the current bylaw, has reached absurd proportions. I urge the city's task force cu

The increasing operation of snowmobiles throughout Whitehorse, permitted to some extent under the current bylaw, has reached absurd proportions.

I urge the city’s task force currently reviewing the snowmobile bylaw to address this problem adequately.

Snowmobiles can be useful machines. I’ve personally used them for work. I have no problem with a quieter and cleaner four-stroke snowmobile operated on a designated backcountry trail.

However, the Whitehorse reality is that we have recreational snowmobilers not only cruising city streets, but also trespassing on sidewalks, private lots, ski trails and other non-motorized trails. They perform their stunts around subdivisions’ greenbelts and compact the snow over large areas of the backcountry.

Allowing snowmobile operation on city streets and greenbelts throughout subdivisions has only resulted in unmanageable situations that bylaw officers have been unable to contain.

Research into bylaws from several northern BC towns similar to Whitehorse indicates that snowmobiles were not permitted to circulate in any form throughout their towns.

Many snowmobilers won’t admit their machines negatively impact others and the environment. Environmental damage caused by snowmobiles is often dismissed because it’s not immediately noticeable. However, studies have demonstrated that snow compacted by snowmobiles results in long-term damage to underlying vegetation in low snow density.

Particularly vulnerable to such damage in the Whitehorse area are the south-facing slopes and protected areas that snowmobilers favour because they’re wide open, but which have the thinnest layer of snow. I have also frequently seen small trees damaged after being run over by these machines.

Snow compaction is also detrimental to small animals that rely on snow for shelter and protection. While burrowed unseen under the snow, they suffocate or are crushed when run over by snowmobiles.

In some ways, the environmental impact of snowmobiles can be greater than summer off-roading, as these machines can access much larger areas by crossing over frozen rivers and lakes. Winter is already a difficult enough time for wildlife without the addition of noise-induced stress. Just because wild animals don’t flee when approached doesn’t mean they’re not adversely affected. Staying put to conserve depleted energy, as opposed to fleeing across deep snow, can be a stressful life and death struggle for wild animals.

Other, more obvious impacts are air and noise pollution.

Studies have demonstrated a snowmobile’s two-stroke engine can emit up to one third of its fuel unburned out of their tailpipe. Accumulation of these toxins has been detected in soil and water in the vicinity of snowmobile trails. True, the newer two-stroke engines are cleaner, but they still emit highly toxic exhaust fumes.

Worse, the newer two-stroke snowmobiles are noisier than ever, even during regular operation. Even when indoors, a single snowmobile passing on the street in front of our home sounds like a power drill going through the window. In comparison a car sounds like a whisper. When performing stunts snowmobiles can be heard over a distance of three kilometres.

The most common objection on the part of citizens when development is proposed is that it will result in increased traffic. Properties located on quiet streets, next to parks or non-motorized trails are typically more desirable, and consequently fetch higher values. Now, just imagine the impact on your quality of life, and consequently property value, if a snowmobile trail was to be officially established next to your home.

A brief internet search turned up the following examples of this happening across Canada:

In Quebec, about 600 residents from a Laurentian municipality had to take legal action against their municipality and snowmobile clubs for the installation of a snowmobile trail near their properties. The judge ruled the resulting noise adversely affected residents’ health and awarded compensation.

A similar struggle occurred in Paradise, Nova Scotia, and several nearby rural communities, where residents had to fight long and hard against snowmobile and ATV activity on trails going through their community. When these motorized offroad vehicles were allowed on a trail near a Paradise dairy farm, milk production plummeted due to noise-induced stress on livestock. Once the farmers were able to block offroad vehicle traffic several months later, the herd’s production rate went back up.

In Alberta, rural residents of the Lac Ste. Anne region opposed the installation of offroad vehicle trails in their area. Although many of these residents are farmers who themselves own offroad vehicles for work, they were concerned about stressed livestock, property and environmental damage, as well as losing their quiet rural lifestyle.

In BC, the Trails Society of British Columbia criticized the concept of multiuse trails, stating “É the reality is that as soon as motorized vehicles regularly use a trail, that trail becomes alienated from all other users.”

In the above examples, residents named snowmobiles as having just as bad an impact on their lives as other offroad vehicles.

The conclusion is clear: while nonmotorized trails were highly desirable and increased a community’s attractiveness, motorized activity on trails negatively impacted the health and quality of life of the majority of the surrounding residents.

Who doubts the lobbying to open community trails and parks to snowmobiles and ATVs is driven by big industry dollars. Sadly, governments have too many times bowed under that pressure for the sake of a minority’s immediate economic gain. Meanwhile the costs of diminished well-being and degraded environment are passed to an unwilling majority.

I question the appointment of local offroad vehicle vendors and the Klondike Snowmobile Association to the task force currently reviewing the snowmobile bylaw, as they are biased towards their industry. Offroad vehicle vendors are on Klondike Snowmobile Association’s gold membership list.

Why is the Klondike Snowmobile Association’s self-promotion as a ‘responsible’ organization so seldom questioned. The Klondike Snowmobile Association’s website posted an October 2010 newsletter that advocated the least government intervention in the offroad vehicle issue, and stated “we have helped the sport thrive in the face of opposition from a variety of groups and individuals.”

Has the Klondike Snowmobile Association truly addressed the causes of this opposition?

For example, has the Klondike Snowmobile Association ever actively lobbied for restricting the manufacture and sales of snowmobiles to standards of low noise and emissions? Haven’t the gold members offroad vehicle vendors pursued the sales of snowmobiles capable of exorbitant noise and speeds? Has the Klondike Snowmobile Association ever put a fund in place to cover medical expenses for injuries frequently resulting from using such machines?

To sum up, we need regulations restricting the noise and emission level of snowmobiles to acceptable standards. Their operation should be restricted to specific outlying trails, starting at least a kilometre’s distance outside of subdivisions. They should be kept off protected areas. Operators should be of minimum age, have completed a course on safe and environmentally responsible operation, and hold a driver’s licence. Licence plate and insurance should be mandatory at the time of purchase.

Dorothy LeBel

Whitehorse